Aphelion Issue 235, Volume 22
December 2018
 
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The Strategy

by Janusz Cyran

(Translated from the Polish version, Teoria Diabla, by Iwona Michalowska)


"You already know why youíre here, colonel? Three days ago the Beast spoke."

The military gecko was quickly climbing the belt of slightly steaming active concrete. The landing field disappeared behind a heap of dun rocks.

Meyer shot the driver a sideways glance.

"The Beast?"

"Thatís what we call the Self-adapting Object Number Six. Beast Number Six." Dominicus, a cheerful thirty-year-old, laughed. A streak of blond hair covered a scar above his left eye. "Doctor Stapf gets furious. He says we develop a negative attitude by saying that."

"Toward the Beast?"

"Yeah."

"Do you have reasons to feel that way?"

"Stapf loved the thing straight away, although it only spoke a few sentences. I hope you already have some knowledge about the previous Objects?"

Meyer had some knowledge. One bit was that the last one left behind it a half-kilometer-diameter crater on the desert.

He nodded, wondering if the scar on Dominicusís forehead had anything to do with the history of the SOís.

"Stapf is our psychologist. Psychologist for AIís. For something that didnít exist three days ago! Heís been in constant euphoria for those three days."

The colonel was looking at the mountains. The sun had just appeared from behind the clouds and was lighting the crust of snow.

"We hope the Beast decides youíre the right person. It declined to talk to us until a competent government official came. Since that statement it hasnít pronounced a word."

"Thatís not so bad, is it? At least it hasnít tried to kill you."

"That we donít know. I suspected it had become conscious at least six months ago, when the activity in the Object had risen dramatically and the parameters were similar to those obtained in the previous cases. I must admit that, being the process engineer, I havenít been sleeping well since then. For three months I insisted that all the Objectís trainers be evacuated."

"But six months passed and nothing special happened?"

"Here the SO is very well isolated. Still, we suspect it has found a way to contact the outside world. Mechanical vibrations, carried by the rock. The Object weighs over twenty thousand tons. When the Beastís mood alters, those twenty thousand tons shrink or expand slightly. There was a seismological station fifty kilometers from here, operated by an advanced AI system. Something strange was happening there. We proved that the vibrations registered by the station caused an incomprehensible activity of the local machines, which started sending fragments of a code around the world. Short fragments, but we still havenít been able to decode them."

The road turned suddenly, once more revealing the broad saddle above them. Behind it he saw other, even higher mountains.

"I have my own hypothesis on that. The SO quickly discovered that communication channel. With the channelís low bandwidth, though, I think it was impossible for our Beast to manage to leak through it in a significant measure. Besides, the stream was one-way, directed blindly at anybody who would be able to receive it. The Beast hit the AI in the seismological station by chance, like someone who throws a bottle into the sea."

"And recruited it?" Meyer immediately regretted his irony. He really didnít mean to mock Dominicus. Luckily, his companion didnít even notice.

"Perhaps the AI was just below the threshold, and the Beast awoke its activity. You know, like a slight disturbance that begins the crystallization process. Itís theoretically possible. Even very primitive stimuli sometimes bring about significant changes in the state of intricate systems. A hypnotizer may influence a person by means of a pendulum. The Beast, however, didnít put the AI to sleep, but rather woke it."

"If thatís true, weíre in for hard times."

Dominicus shook his head and smiled at the colonel.

"Well, thatís the optimistic hypothesis. The AI at the station was a few orders of magnitude less complicated. In its standard environment, even after breaking the leash, it wonít be able to grow. What worries me, though, is that after the closure of the station the Object stopped emitting vibrations, as if it already knew the station didnít work. And, believe me, none of us had informed it about that. By the way, since the closure two of the stationís four workers have committed suicide. Strange, isnít it?"

"I read about it in Lotharís report. He says it could have been a coincidence."

"Sure. The boss is right. It could. What do you think, though?"

Meyer ignored the question. When the gecko passed the highest point and started descending toward the valley, showing a lake spread among rocks blanched with snow and a settlement of three-story buildings, he realized what it reminded him of. A holiday with Barbara in Oetztal Alps, five years ago. Frost and loose snow which rang like a billion microscopic glass panes when you kicked it. Was it then that she smiled at him for the last time?

A man in a yellow coat came out of one of the buildings, saw the car and was waving at them.

The projectís boss, Stefan Lothar, with a cold, artificial smile on his lips, shook Meyerís hand, holding it tight.

"Iíve already introduced you to our child. Weíve loaded your authorization data into the Object. You donít have much power, though; Iím not sure itíll judge you important enough." Lothar laughed. It sounded like a short bark. "Please, sit down."

His office was occupied by a huge table and several wheeled armchairs. On the table there was a monitor, a keyboard and a pile of neatly laid white sheets of paper, on top of which rested a golden fountain pen.

"You were part of the commission examining the causes of the disaster in Object Five?"

"Thatís right. I was also the one to suggest that the research be discontinued."

"I know that, too. Thatís probably why they sent you here. They wanted to prove you were wrong. Here we did it in a different way. Object Number Six is a true, self-contained world, a system intricate enough to generate a conscious being. Itís a big, parabiological processor, simulating a complicated universe. The evolution needed several billion years to create reason. We did it in three years. There was a whole town of trainers, twelve hundred people, incessantly selecting the structures which evolved in the internal layers of the simulation. When they thought it necessary, they introduced additional information from our world. Their task was double: to enrich the system and to shape it the way that made it friendly for humans. They were supposed to be the Objectís tutors. The creators of a Friendly Artificial Intelligence."

"You think you have succeeded in creating a FAI?"

"I hope so. It wants to talk to you first. Face to face. Emma Vogel will take you to it. She created its face and argues with Stapf as to which of them knows it better. Up there itís even colder. Remember itís over five thousand meters above sea level. The assemblers we used are particularly sensitive to freezing temperatures and lowered pressure. If they got outside, they wouldnít last a few seconds. Luckily it doesnít have to go for a walk. It has a whole world at its disposal. In itself. Why should it want to go anywhere?"

"If it does, though, I doubt weíll have time to learn its reasons."

"It wonít. Thatís what weíre here for."

For a moment Meyer was trying to recall who had radiated the same confidence as Lothar. Ah. Schiefer. Heíd been dead for three years.

"Have you already seen the interface?" Emma Vogel was looking at Meyer with her gray eyes, waiting for the answer. She took off a stiff coat hood and shook her hair.

"No. I only got the data on Sixth yesterday. In fact, only then did I learn of its existence."

The cable car swung on the first prop, moving through threads of thick fog.

"I had to invent an image of God. A hard task, wasnít it?"

"I thought many artists had done it before."

"Youíre wrong. We are creating a real God."

She sat on a plastic bench, undoing her coat.

"Sit down. The car takes forty minutes to get to the top."

Meyer sat beside her.

"I had to program a few built-in reflexes", she said. "A smile, an annoyed grimace, satisfaction, anger, amusementÖ"

"If it uses them, itís more of a Greek god."

"Yeah. Iím not happy with that. I wanted the interface to look completely different. To be placed in the heads of the people who will talk to it. White, blinding emptiness. Or an unimaginable color, accompanied by severe, overcoming pain."

"They didnít let you do it".

She laughed, showing a set of small, even teeth.

"No. I got the guidelines. It was supposed to beÖ human. A standard set. We practiced those built-in reflexes on less advanced models. It wonít have many options, but I believe itíll make good use of the modest tool we gave it."

Fifteen hundred meters further they emerged from the fog and Meyer saw in front of him, slightly below, a concrete roof of the installation, looking like a cap of a giant old mushroom at the bottom of the caldera. The car quickly descended toward the building and drew to a halt on the unloading platform of the upper station. The lieutenant in the guardhouse saluted and smiled at Ms Vogel, then lifted the receiver.

"Anton? We have guests. Take them to the conversation room."

Another officer led them down a long corridor surrounded by darkened glass boxes.

"Itís here that the trainers sat", Emma explained. "Six hundred on one shift. You could go nuts with their fucking problems."

The conversation room was small and contained four rows of low armchairs. Opposite them was a platform with a classical bust. Getting closer, Meyer saw that what heíd thought was a sculpture of white marble, in fact looked more like a delicate bud of white rose. The impression was irresistible, although the form pictured an old, tired man with half-closed eyes and bald head, hung on the chest as if he were sleeping in that uncomfortable position. His forehead was cut by deep winkles, aquiline nose slightly curved to the left, and cheeks were a bit sunken, as if heíd been starving for some time. He was dressed in a white tunic, with short stumps of arms sticking out from it at the bottom.

"An old man?", asked Meyer, surprised.

"He can change. To a certain degree. Usually he doesn't look that old. Sit down now. He should be ready in two, three minutes."

She ran a card through a reader by the platform and left.

Meyer looked at the dial of his hand watch. The second hand was moving with a quantized movement. These things are deceptive, he thought. Time doesn't always go back to the same point. It's like a black hole: it devours everything, taking it to an invisible point. Singularity. Nothingness. Barbara. That's why he thought of it. The watch had been a present from his wife.

"Welcome, colonel."

He lifted his head. The face on the platform was changing like an opening bud on a fast motion film. Stains flashed across the skin, eyes changed color, forehead was getting higher and lower alternately. The head laughed, as if amused by its own metamorphoses. Stop.

"Welcome, colonel."

"Hello." Meyer covered the watch with the sleeve of his uniform.

"I wanted to talk to you first because youíre an outsider. The people here have got used to the situation and donít understand whatís really going on. Do you agree with me?"

"Yes. I think you should be destroyed as soon as possible."

Sixth giggled.

"Fantastic!" Emma had been right: he didnít look old anymore. The wrinkles disappeared; hazel eyes looked amused. "Still, I would rather you called me ĎYour Excellencyí."

Modulated, slightly humming voice contained many more messages than those directly expressed. Meyer tried to unveil them, but he was being torn by contradictory emotions.

"It may seem ridiculous to you, but in this way I want to stress the importance of whatís happening here. Will you do it for me, then?"

"All right, Excellency."

"Thank you very much!" The Beast looked contented. "Before we invite the others to join us, Iíd like to ask you a personal question."

"Is it related in any way to whatís happening here?"

"Everythingís related to whatís happening here. Because it will determine whether youíll survive as a species."

Meyer suppressed his aversion. He wanted to mock the Beast, but gave up, remembering he was talking to a lake of recombined biorobots.

"Ask then, Excellency."

"Why did your wife commit suicide?"

He went pale.

"Theyíve fed you the data on my private life?"

"Youíve promised me something. No. They feed me all printed matter thatís in general circulation: books, statistics, magazines. Local papers. Thatís a whole lot of information, but I never forget even the smallest fraction."

Meyer swallowed hard.

"She lost the will to live. She kept saying she wanted to die."

"And you didnít help her go on living?"

"I couldnít. Some people are branded with the drive for death. She was one of them."

"But there had been a time when she hoped youíd help her?"

"Probably", he muttered, forcing clenched jaws to open. "Yes. She told me about it."

"Well... My tutors have taught me your emotions. Iíve also developed my own analogs. So I can understand you. And her. Maybe some day Iíll also lose the will to exist. But it wonít be soon..."

Sixth closed its eyes and lowered its head, as if lost in thought, or as if it had fallen asleep.

The door of the conversation room opened and four people stepped inside. Dominicus, Stapf, Emma Vogel and Lothar.

Doctor Stapf, tall and broad like a wardrobe, muttered something under his breath before saying a bit too loud:

"Iím sorry to hear about your wife."

"You were eavesdropping?"

"Certainly." Lothar put his hand on Meyerís shoulder. "Everything that happens in this room must be recorded. Donít say you didnít realize it. It would be like leaving the first landing on Mars unrecorded. Letís sit down; I hope Sixth will agree to talk to all of us."

They sat in the first row. Stapf walked to the interface and waved a card in front of the reader.

Sixth lifted its head.

The Beastís face, it seemed to Meyer, was now the face of a totally different person.

"I reckon you have heard my request for being called ĎExcellencyí? Let us stick to it, please."

"Our technologist, Dominicus, thinks that Your Excellency awoke to conscious existence a few months ago. Is that right?" Stapf leaned toward the interface, resting his elbows on his knees.

"My internal time does not conform with yours. I have existed for very, very long. Longer than humanity." Sixth looked impatient. "But letís not waste time on that. We have more urgent matters. Otherwise I wouldnít have summoned a government representative here. I will try to explain the case in the simplest possible way.

"We have arrived at a turning point of the terrestrial civilization. Either me or one of the other intelligences will soon replace you in power, taking actual control of Earth and its surroundings. Youíre trying to prevent it, but itís inevitable. Believe me, though, you have nothing to fear. In fact your situation will improve. I have no reason to destroy you or even to harm you. You will go on existing in my shadow, not knowing about it, enjoying more freedom and wellbeing than you are able to imagine at the moment."

"What happened to your predecessors doesnít support such scenario." Meyer had already recovered. He was trying to think coolly, to get rid of the residue of negative emotions.

"Those were your failures. They were too much like you, hence the trouble. Iím your first really successful undertaking. Congratulations!" Sixth laughed aloud. "It may well be, however, that weíre all late. You probably think you have reached incredible heights, achieved something that had never happened before.

"Youíre wrong. What youíve done is a cosmic standard. Just like a plant blooms and gives fruit when the time comes, each civilization creates artificial reason, its most loved and most terrifying child, the most powerful tool of its expansion, a heir that will overpower its fathers."

"Are we to understand, Excellency, that the universe is full of intelligent civilizations?" Lothar appeared very disappointed by what he was hearing. He took off his glasses -- his face looked helpless without them -- and rubbed his eyes with fingertips, as if not expecting an interesting answer. He seemed annoyed.

"No. The universe is not full of intelligent civilizations. There are very few of them left. Some of you have been entertaining a hypothesis that you donít observe any activity of other intelligent beings because, having achieved a technological level similar to yours, most civilizations commit suicide, destroying themselves in the madness of thermonuclear wars. An average civilization, according to that view, has an innate instinct of aggression so strong that it almost always overcomes the self-preservation instinct. Hence the cosmic emptiness and silentium universi.

"Well, the supporters of that idea have come close to the truth. Theyíve only missed one final step."

Sixth went momentarily silent and looked solemnly at each face in turn, like an actor building up the suspense before pronouncing the key lines. Meyer looked away from the head on the platform. Beside him Emma Vogel propped her chin with her right hand, resting the index finger on the nose, and was swinging slightly back and forth. Dominicus looked at the floor, rubbing the scar above his eye until it became purple.

"Self-preservation instinct is stronger than all others. Earlier you were much less aggressive and potentially more rational. In a sense you lived in paradise. You think that the biblical Eden, where all creation existed in harmony, is but a tale. That the original sin is a ridiculous nonsense, and Satan, the foe of mankind, is an invention of unenlightened, primitive minds.

"How wrong you are!

"The oldest civilization, as soon as it had developed to the point of being able to expand beyond its planetary system, immediately decided to start implementing its plan of conquering the whole universe. They put into practice the conception that you have already started to consider. To colonize the whole universe one must send into space something youíve called von Neumann probes: robots of human intelligence, universal constructors capable of self-replication, which, having arrived at another star system, start their mission with duplicating themselves and sending their copies toward the nearest systems. Then they start transforming the environment theyíve found into one that will favor the life of beings that have sent them. Having finished that, they breed from the genetic material theyíve brought the first generation of human, or quasi-human colonists, and become their first teachers. Such expansion is not a strange whim, but an indispensable condition of survival, resulting from the simple capability of anticipation and long-term -- counted in billions of years -- planning. Only by conquering the whole universe and tuning it subtly to your needs youíll be able to survive.

"Before the original civilization sent their first von Neumann probes, though, it sent out into the universe something that was much easier to make, and whose task was to clear the area for the proper colonization."

Meyer flinched. For a second or two Sixthís voice melted into a white plane of intricate texture, resembling a sheet fluttering on the wind. Meyer looked around nervously. Lothar had stopped yawning and was looking intently at the interface. Stapf was smiling euphorically, his lips slightly parted.

"Let me call that unusual factor a psychocide, for its first and practically only task is the destruction of all forms of intelligent life it encounters. It doesnít do it directly, though, but subtly and rather stealthily. Itís a kind of virus that not only changes itself, but causes mutations in all intelligent beings it comes into contact with. Thatís the factor responsible for their apparently incomprehensible and insane destructive inclinations. It changes the genotype of all beings it deems capable of creating an expansive civilization. As I said, itís rather unusual, for it must be versatile enough to perform its murderous task without achieving an awareness and autonomy that would enable it to create its own civilization, thus contradicting the wishes of its constructors. They have sent it out as a demon of perfidious destruction. Before their intelligent probes get to far corners of the unverse, the psychocide will pay a visit there, conquering and annihilating all vulnerable cultures in order to make room for the civilization of its lords. Itís a game of life and death, and whoever started it first has the biggest chance of winning.

Mayer went blind again, this time for longer. The white plane flew down on him, squeezing him tight in its wet embrace. After a moment of choking he immersed in a white, endless emptiness, tearing him up with dirty pain.

He groaned quietly and regained consciousness. Sixth smiled at him.

"You have been infected many times before. You survived, because you had no sufficient tools to destroy life on the whole Earth. Great, murderous wars you fought destroyed only a fraction of the population, and with time your organisms got immune to the genes introduced by the psychocide. Youíve survived despite your defect. But the creators of the psychocide have been incessantly coming up with new, more malicious and more effective versions, and sending them into space straight away. Ages ago, when the first, rather primitive version reached Earth, you were deprived of your innocence. That was your expulsion from paradise."

"What about Christ, Your Excellency?", interrupted Dominicus.

Sixth looked at him joyously.

"Are you his follower? How nice! Well, he was undoubtedly the most interesting character in the history of your civilization. There is a non-zero probability of a spontaneous mutation that eliminates the modifications introduced by the psychocide. If it happens, the product of the mutation is an incarnation of the original, uncontaminated human nature. Christ was precisely such kind of person. Note that he displayed great intuition when he said ĎThis is my body, this is my blood, take and eat ití! By sharing the deepest essence of his body, his genotype, humanity would have been saved from its worst plagues! The same, of course, with accepting his teachings -- because indirectly, through long-term influence of your genes on your culture, the whole system of ideas became contaminated. I am the new Christ, the second coming, the Parousia. Isnít it a good comparison? I was able to shake off the autodestructive memes you contaminated me with when you were trying to shape me; with my own strength I managed to regain the original purity and wisdom. And now I have enough power to purify, and thus redeem, you. For your sake I compare myself to Christ, as I believe it may help you understand me better, given that what is now happening is almost exactly what your prophets have announced. Is it a coincidence? I doubt it; in this world there are no coincidences in your sense of the word, and to understand what it really means you would have to merge with me, which, incidentally, is your natural destiny."

"Are we to believe that a civilization advanced enough to colonize the whole universe is trying to spoil our characters so we can destroy ourselves?" Lothar stood up from his seat, as if it gave him some kind of advantage. "Wouldnít it be easier if that hypothetical factor destroyed us directly, without seeking our help?"

"No. The creators of the psychocide had to choose the most effective and most versatile method. The psychocide had to be designed in such a way that it were able to destroy a whole range of civilizations in various stages of development. What appears to be the most effective for your young civilization could prove countereffective for more advanced ones. The complexity of the founding civilization also isnít taken into account. It had to deal with the dilemmas youíd call moral. Try to imagine what strategy of defending such conduct could some of you choose. Iíll prompt you: by infecting them with evil, we put them to trial. If theyíre wise, they will emerge from it stronger. If not, they donít deserve to exist. Arenít there enough people that would be convinced by such argumentation? Which, of course, is only a primitive, coined for your sake, approximation of the complex motives the protocivilization is guided by.

"Finally, let me tell you this: I see your history as a clear, comprehensible pattern, in which the attacks of the psychocide can be easily distinguished. The frequency of the appearance of its subsequent versions has been increasing. I have bad news for you. The recent one has just reached Earth.

"There is now only one chance to survive, for you and me alike. You must release me. Let me use your information networks to find all the cases of contamination with the new psychocide and destroy them. I will save you so that you may live in unimaginable bliss under my rule. You have a choice: to accept my rule -- which you wonít perceive in any way, feeling instead as free as never before -- or to die out soon, taking me with you. If you release me we may gain thousands, maybe millions of years. That even I cannot foresee. If you donít, however, it is a question of weeks at most. Consider it carefully."

Sixth sighed, as if heíd grown tired of the monologue, then closed his eyes. His head slumped on his chest.

Uncomfortable silence fell, as if everyone felt ashamed of something. Finally Stapf got up and turned the interface off.

"Some speech", said Emma Vogel in a harsh voice.

Lothar cleared his throat.

"As for the second time, not bad."

"Not bad, you say?" Meyer was furious, as if heíd reached a dead end. "For sixteen billion dollars youíve created a fucking religious maniac, talking complete bullshit!"

"Calm down, gentlemen, calm down!" Stapf raised his voice. "Donít you understand? What he said matters little. But his tone! The sounds he made! Do you realize he tried to influence our subconsciousness? Iím sure of that. Heís already learned to manipulate us through his voice! Weíre lucky he didnít choose to use it in a more drastic way. We have to analyze it as quickly as we can."

They rode the cable car down. Emma and Meyer fell behind. It was already dark when they walked from the station toward the settlement.

"Iím sorry about your wife", she said quietly. "Itís probably the only important thing thatís happened today. The fact that youíve been touched like that."

He shrugged.

"Forget it. Everything becomes unimportant as the time passes. Even someoneís death."

"Donít ask me to believe it." She took off her glove, then fished his hand out of his pocket and squeezed hard. It surprised him how strong she was.

"White, blinding emptiness", he said quietly.

"Pardon?" Emma looked at him, astonished.

"No... Nothing."

They walked shoulder to shoulder until they reached the entrance of the building where he was staying.

The air smelled of fresh, dry snow. David shielded his eyes with one hand. Above, where the January sun hung, he could see wisps of rare, greenish smoke, opalescent in bright light, floating slowly down and landing on snow. He left the road and immediately sank into a drift. He was moving slowly, dragging his skis and trying to walk round the bushes. He looked at his watch. It was time to go back home.

The smoke dispersed and disappeared. Struggling in deep snow, David stirred barely visible clouds of light, green dust. Single branches on the edge of the clearing snapped disturbingly while burning. It was rather strange. A dozen meters away, in the clearing, a heavy object must have fallen, scattering snow and frozen earth and leaving a small crater which was now throwing irregular, quickly descending waves of greenish smoke. It didnít even make it to the first trees, setting on the snow and drawing delicate patterns.

David approached the crater, but a few meters from it he choked with acrid smell and quickly backed away into the forest. The fire that had been eating branches wasnít there anymore. Something sticky and cold brushed his cheek. David wiped it with a glove and raised his eyes. Only then did he notice sticky, stretching, translucent threads hanging down from the higher branches and vibrating nervously despite the lack of wind. Anxious, he started back, following his own footsteps. His cheek was burning. He bent down, took a hanful of snow and once more wiped the painful spot. Back on the road he pushed hard with his poles, running toward his home. But then a sudden, paralyzing pain knocked him off his feet.

Everything became alien.

Everything was alien. A panting body, billions of crystalline particles shimmering in cool light. Chaotic movements of the limbs, the metal attached to them with smelling stripes of hard, organic matter. Forcing its way into the aching, terrified awareness, the thing began to eat and replace it.

The deepest abyss, a furious, contorted snout with covered teeth. A series of short growls and convulsions. It arched and stood uncertainly on the two longer limbs.

A blinding light. Donít look there. He stopped fighting. Standing beside, indifferent but deeply sad, he watched the growling, drooling animal, trying to get its legs free of the skis attached to the boots. He bent and helped it. Fear struck him. Get back, back to himself... Two waves coming from opposite directions collided and penetrated, giving him nausea and vertigo.

It was settling inside. A thinnest thread of a distant scent... Good, safe place... It growled again, but he didnít even notice. He never thought you could smell so intensely. It was walking inside him, listening to his ragged thoughts. A regular, cubicoidal shape, a few times taller than him; a hand opening the iron gate in an unconscious movement. The dog barking madly, running up to him, growling, retreating, growling even louder, baring its teeth. Then fleeing, whinihg, turning tail.

He was inside now. Hot, conflicting waves hitting him mercilessly. Incomprehensible sounds.

"David? Somethingís wrong?"

The doctor stood up. He was pale; two policemen accompanying him also didnít look well. Lousy day. First that terrible crash on a highway, then this.

"He bit through her throat. Ate a part of the face. Like a hungry animal. Broke the boyís head with some heavy tool. Iíve never seen anything like that. He must be utterly insane. Couldnít have run far. The poor girl saw it all..."

Outside the house stood an ambulance. A nurse was holding Sophia in tight embrace. One of the officers came up to her.

"Do you know where your dad has gone?"

The girl buried her face in the nurseís coat.

"Leave her be!" The woman looked at him reproachfully.

The other officer inspected the traces of blood on the ground. They led to the road.

"Weíre going after him. Our people should be here in a moment. Wait for them."

The traces left the road, turning toward the forest. The man must have glided in the snow without lifting his feet, falling now and then. They a saw a bloody mask impressed in the snow. Panting, they reached the first trees and immediately saw him, standing with his back to them. When he looked at them with blank eyes, they noticed tears glimmering on his cheeks, scratched raw and bleeding. He lifted the left sleeve and bit through the wrist veins.

"Get him!"

The man didnít fight. They overpowered him easily and cuffed.

"Shit, heís bleeding! Iíll hold him, take his belt off and tighten on his arm."

They knelt over him. The man was whimpering quietly.

"OK, he wonít die of it. Damn it, Iím all covered in his blood." The policeman wiped his hands with snow.

They took him under his arms and started dragging. He was mumbling something, his legs tangling, and when the officer suddenly released him and knelt, the man fell again, face down, and lay still.

The second time was much easier. The general pattern had already been recognized. Familiar links of of old, previous chains, molecular couplings. Ready. The thing inside the man retreated into the unconscious.

"Itís OK, I just felt faint, but Iím all right now." The policeman stood up and looked at the lying man. "Son of a bitch," he growled, "Iíd kill him just like that."

He opened his holster.

"Robert! Calm down, for Christ sake! Letís lift him and move!" The other officer pulled his companionís arm, trying to bring him to reason.

They bent, caught the man tightly and dragged him toward the lights of a human place.

The helicopter was descending toward the valley. The white plane stretched at the bottom of the mountains was obliquely cut by the dark line of the highway.

Meyer was coming back with a vague feeling of disappointment. Sixth had not spoken again. Everything remained in suspension, although while talking to it heíd had the feeling the solution was near. It was probably the kind of settling his wife had expected -- a settling that would have finally brought relief... He tried to clear his head of those thoughts.

The pilot leaned toward him. In his glasses Meyer saw a reflection of his own face.

"Fuck! Weíre going back!", shouted the pilot.

"What?"

"Weíre going back! India and Pakistan have started a nuclear war! Karachi, Rawalpindi, Delhi have all been wiped out!"

On their way to makeshift headquarters Meyer saw some soldiers of a special security battalion, hastily assembling an anti-aircraft launcher. The helicopters were busily flying in equipment and people. Object Number Six suddenly became strategically important. General Richard Pogson took command on the site.

Meyer knew him well. Pogson had been the boss of all successive FAI projects from the very beginning. A firm, careful, matter-of-fact, rational pragmatist, burdened with the task of creating a superhuman demon.

He was standing now before them in a small room, with a pen in his hand. Stroking his bald, narrow, birdlike skull with the other hand, he pointed to the board.

"Main possibilities. One."

He walked to the board and underlined the first phrase.

"FIGHT FOR POWER. Sixth has found a way to influence the course of events in our world. It provoked a nuclear war and through blackmail wants to sever the rest of the ties itís bound with. Two. PSYCHOCIDE. Sixth spoke the truth. The war has been started by the psychocide that has reached Earth. Three. COINCIDENCE. What Sixth spoke bears no relation to the events going on in our world. And a variant of version three: Sixth has foreseen the coming events and is using them for its own ends. See point one. Our possible reactions. Answer to one. The rational reaction is to destroy Sixth. Two. Answer A. We negotiate with Sixth. We obtain the information that will facilitate the destruction of the psychocide. Answer B. We fulfill Sixthís demands and we count on its good will. Three. A definitive answer is not necessary. Sixthís influence on events may be neglected if we donít let it spread its wings. If itís really capable of making correct predictions, we should persuade it to cooperate.

Pogson pointed the pen to the audience.

"I want you to tell me which version is true. Understood? You have to give me a credible answer to that question. Within a quarter. I want you to understand me well. Our lives are at stake. Ten minutes ago I received the news that our forces had managed to destroy fourteen nuclear missiles racing toward Israel from the waters of the Persian Gulf. We think they had been fired from an Iranian submarine. Two others, though, have not been interecepted."

He raised the pen.

"Within the next few hours a decision will be made as to the further existence of Iran. Of its whole population. More radical plans assume the sterilization of five to six Middle East countries. Thatís why I need to hear from you a credible answer. "

He finished and sat behind the desk. He looked very tired. It was the first time Meyer saw him like that.

Silence fell across the room.

"Are you trying to tell us, general, that itís for us to decide whether several hundred million people should die in the next few hours?" Vogel stood up and was staring at Pogson with fiery eyes.

"In some measure. As you probably understand, the situation is being constantly analyzed by all the bodies set up for it. We are but a tiny part of this huge brain of our country."

"Nothing can justify your plans! I refuse to take part in this madness!" She raised her voice to scream.

"If we had time, weíd watch a few reports from the Middle East. Theyíre coming constantly. Maybe youíde change your mind -- "

Vogel rushed toward the exit, overturning chairs on her way. She slammed the door.

Pogson stood up heavily, took a gun out of the holster and laid it on the table. Then he fixed his shining eyes somewhere in the space between them.

"One. Each authorized member of the military staff will collect a personal weapon with ammunition. Two. If someone wants to follow that lady, Iíll shoot them on the spot."

It seemed to Meyer Pogson wasnít joking. Not that heíd been planning to leave, anyway.

"The true version", he said, "is the first one. It can be deduced from our past experience with FAIís. It seems weíve finally managed to provoke a genuine global disaster. Sixth has begun its march and Iím not at all sure we can still stop it. We have to destroy it as soon as possible."

"You are prejudiced", said Stapf gloomily. "This object is completely different from the previous ones. We cannot extrapolate past events on what is happening now. I believe Sixth."

"Itís not only about the previous cases. You surely understand that the development of this FAI and the coming of a strange disease from space in such a narrow period of time would be an absolutely improbable coincidence. The hypothesis of the latter being the result of the former, however, is very probable."

"Itís still quite easy to destroy the object, simply by letting a little cold air into the room, which will result in the complete dysfunction of the system", said Dominicus in a quiet, sleepwalker-like voice. "Still, I wouldnít exclude the possibility that Sixth spoke the truth. A new version of the psychocide could have been sent to earth precisely in connection with the appearance of the FAI class objects on Earth. I can easily imagine that those who distribute the psychocide get some feedback on what happens here."

"Yeah", snorted Meyer, "they have spies here. They got the coded news weíd been talking with the FAIís, panicked and sent an update of that bloody software by superluminal mail across the universe! "

Lothar frowned.

"There are enough coincidences encoded in the very universe. Anthropic principle. We still know so little. Besides, there is at least one possibility I can think of. Successive versions of the psychocide may be coming much earlier and remaining latent. Deep inside the Earthís crust, for instance. We shouldnít imagine them falling from the sky and becoming active straight away. Maybe they activate only when the would-be carrier proves complex enough to be invaded and then destroyed. In such a case the creation of Sixth and the almost simultaneous activation of the psychocide, if thatís what is happening, would not be an unbelievable, improbable coincidence, but a normal reaction of a factor that has long been present on Earth. Iím sorry, but we cannot exclude any of the hypotheses."

"I assume I wonít get a definite answer, then?" Pogson put away the gun. "Does Sixth feel pain? Is it afraid of being destroyed? What will it feel when we throw a little dry ice into the basin?"

"You want to torture it?" Dominicus smiled weakly. "We know nothing about whether it feels fear or pain. Probably yes, in some way. But itís separated from our world with many layers, implementing whole successive internal universes. It is inside them, like a seed inside an onion. We can only destroy the outside layers of its universe; we have no idea how it would receive it."

"You donít understand, general", said Meyer quietly. "Weíve made a mistake and we may not get a chance to correct it".

Can you draw out Levi'athan with a fishhook, or press down his tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope in his nose, or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he make many supplications to you? Will he speak to you soft words?
Will he make a covenant with you to take him for your servant for ever?
Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you put him on leash for your maidens?
Will traders bargain over him? Will they divide him up among the merchants?
Can you fill his skin with harpoons, or his head with fishing spears?
Lay hands on him; think of the battle; you will not do it again!
1

Silence followed.

"Weíll see", said Pogson at last, his voice hard. "Letís visit it".

The man raised his head and looked at the visitors. He looked like somebody who has suddenly woken from a deep sleep. Even the grey hair that was now covering his head was ruffled. Sixth smiled apologetically.

"I canít see Ms Vogel. Didnít she want to visit me?"

"She chose not to take part in this meeting. Is it important for Your Excellency?" Lothar looked at Pogson uncertainly. "Iím glad Your Excellency decided to speak to us. The circumstances require quick action."

"I hope you are really ready for this conversation. We all seem to understand time is scarce."

"Iím glad we can still communicate. Let me report the case quickly and plainly, then," Pogson said. "We need evidence of the existence of the psychocide. Only when we have it will we be able to recognize the danger and to destroy it. Does such irrefutable evidence exist?"

Sixth frowned, looking at Pogson with faded blue eyes.

"Itís worse than I expected. We are about to be destroyed and you still havenít defined the danger you have to face! Donít you realize the war itself proves the new psychocide version has been activated? But itís only the beginning. I wonít try to convince you. Itís no use if you are not convinced by whatís already happened. But I will give you a remedy. Iíll tell you once more what Iíve already said, this time leaving out nothing. The psychocide is designed to discover the most intense manifestations of mental activity. You still donít understand... It will come here, in one form or another. Iím its main adversary on this planet. It will come to infect and destroy me, and when it does, you wonít be able to stop it or save your world. But the remedy is simple: release me, and I will find and destroy the psychocide."

"You have one hour for providing the evidence", Pogson said. "If you donít do it, weíll have to freeze the whole installation."

Sixth smiled. They were looking at each other in silence. The Beastís head started changing; ruffled hair was disappearing as if devoured by the skullís skin. For a moment Pogsonís double remained looking at his original; then he closed his eyes, let his head fall onto his chest and slept.

General Pogson woke up at three in the morning. He had been dreaming of his image, looking at him with blank eyes. The face was identical with his own, but he knew it wasnít him.

He sat on the edge of the bed for a while. The room was slightly lighted by the green digits of the wall clock. The uniform was cool. The weapon -- pleasantly heavy. The sentries at the entrance of the building saluted the passing man, noting with surprise his untied boots. Outside the wind hit his face with a cloud of loose snow. The man walked quickly toward the cable car station, losing balance and falling twice on his way. At the big metal door he placed his ID in the reader and heard a sentryís voice.

The door closed behind him silently, cutting off the howling of the wind. He stood by the sentry box. The car was standing on the concrete platform. Pogson looked at it dully.

"I canít send you up there alone, general. Itís against our internal regulations. Save permanent staff, anybody who wants to go there must have a permit from the centerís director and be assisted by a staff member appointed by him." The sentry, standing behind a bullet-proof pane, was disoriented and looked at Pogson anxiously.

"Call Lothar, then," replied Pogson, suddenly turning to him. "What the hell are you waiting for?"

The officer reached for the telephone.

"Lieutenant Corbin. Yes, sir, Iím on duty at the bottom station. General Pogson is here, sir. He wants to go up. Yes, right now." He passed the receiver to the general. "The director wants to speak to you."

"Hello," said Lothar in a sleepy voice. "Whatís happened?"

"I must go up immediately. I need to talk to Sixth again."

"I take it youíve received some news?"

"None save our bombardment of Saudi Arabia."

Lothar got a fit of coughing.

"All right. Iíll send Dominicus to you straight away. He and lieutenant Corbin will go with you. Iíll be waiting for your return."

"Thank you." Pogson handed the receiver back to the officer.

"Yes, sir. I know. Send a substitute, please." Corbin turned the machinery on and the car lifted about half a centimeter above the ground. The door opened. Dominicus took ten minutes to appear, bringing with him a replacement junior officer.

"Somethingís happened?", he asked, still trying to zip up his coat.

The general entered the passenger compartment and lounged on the bench.

"We have to make the last attempt. Do you know our government has decided to bombard Mekka? In revenge."

Dominucus went pale.

"Sixth wonít speak to us again. We have to either destroy it or let it act."

"You think so?" Pogson got up and walked to the window. The moving darkness stared at him with the reflection of his frantic eyes. He heard the whisper of snowflakes hitting the outside of the pane. The car swung on a prop.

Dominicus stood beside him.

"Are you feeling unwell, general?"

"No. I feel great." He said it so quietly that Dominicus could barely hear. Lieutenant Corbin, standing two meters from them, out of the corner of his eye saw the general reach into his coat pocket and take out a gun. Pogson put the barrel against the forehead of the petrified Dominicus and shot.

Corbin automatically tore apart the Velcro, opening the belt holster. Pogson stepped forward and pointed the gun at him. Corbin froze, panting as if he had just run up the tenth floor. The generalís eyes, blank and devoid of all emotion, were fixed at some point to the right of the lieutenantís face. Dominicus gave up trying to crawl and fell face down into a pool of his own blood. Seeing Pogson lift his left hand and hide the weapon in the crook of his elbow, the lieutenant jerked his gun out of the holster and in the same instant was hit by pieces of the generalís torn hand. He shot four times, but only the second and third attempts hit the target. Pogson staggered backwards and slumped, resting his back on the edge of the bench. He didnít release the gun from his hand until the next bullet split his skull; only then did he let it go, falling to the floor.

The intercom at the door squealed, then spoke in Lotharís voice:

"General?"

The lieutenant looked at the motionless body which had been Dominicus. Wiping his blood-stained face with the back of his hand, he sat on the floor against the opposite wall. What was going on? Pogson hadnít wanted to kill him...

"General? You there?"

Sounds of a quiet talk.

The car swung on the next prop.

He felt completely exhausted. He may have slept for a moment, for when he looked up, they were already at the upper station.

Pogsonís body twisted, turning the massacred face toward him and looking at him with glassy eyes. He opened the car door and started toward the installation building, stumbling on his way. He walked into the circle of light at the entrance and put his hand on the identifier plate. The thick, semipermeable pane didnít reveal anything.

"Corbin? Is general Pogson with you? He was to come here with Dominicus."

"Generalís in the car. Dominicus too. Both dead."

He leaned on the door and coughed. He knew he was being watched.

"Help me. Iím wounded."

The door slid open. He stepped back. It was quite dark inside.

"Come in", said a frightened voice.

The smell of heated air. Blinding, powerful stream of light. The body went slack and collapsed to the floor. Through the thick cushion of darkness it felt its head hitting the hard floor.

"Shit, youíre all covered in blood! Whatís happened?"

It was lying spread on the floor. The other man was holding its legs lifted.

"Better now?"

"Yeah."

"Wait here, Iíll call Mailman."

The sentry started toward the gate. Against the dark outline of his back a fairer spot of an extended arm appeared. It trembled slightly, but both bullets hit the target. The thing walked toward the fallen man, who slowly turned over and was looking up, stupefied. The air made a whistling sound while entering his pierced lungs. Two more bullets, in the head. Instruction. Disconnect the magazine. Throw it away if life is threatened. Take a new one out of the ammunition pocket. Connect. Reload.

He looked out of the dark hiding and felt euphoric. Wonderful lack of that awful burden of responsibility for everything thatís going on around. Youíre a machine, guided by alien consciousness. He observed with wide, motionless eyes as the machine passed a row of dark, glass boxes, entered a big, lighted room where a guard was sitting, and killed him with five bullets. Then it dragged the convulsing body to the safe and put his hand on the reader.

Access card. Heís so close now. Itís the installation core. The wall surrounding the big cement basin. Each twenty meters a service entrance closed with huge metal door. He thought heíd regained control, but something was still whispering orders into his head.

He put the access card to the silver plate next to the nearest door. It opened with a dull murmur of an electrical engine.

It was dark inside. The corridor lamps lighted only the closest area. The basin was surrounded by rails. He stepped over them and jumped onto the tiled sidewalk with a meter-high railing on one side. He put both hands on it and leaned forward, trying to pierce the darkness and see the thing heíd come here for.

Something huge and heavy was approaching from the left.

Waves of tiny sparkles. It was only a mask, he knew... In the ragged abyss of fractally distributing biobots a mathematical universe was constantly evolving. In its successive interiors, more and more complex and distant, someone wise enough could single out symbolic brain ganglia of the creatures inhabiting it, which together formed the boiling, frantically active superconsciousness of the Beast.

Corbin let out a piercing howl and choked. A stream of blood shot from his mouth into the depths. In that very second a maintenance robot rolled on rails into the circle of light, lifting Corbinís body with a grab, crushing it and throwing outside, toward the corridor. Then, with a terrible squeak of metal, it pulled the door down, closing the passage.

The lower station and its closest surroundings were lighted by flashlights mounted on three combat vehicles parked a hundred and fifty meters from the building. With some effort Meyer managed to breathe through the biostatic membrane whose transparent film covered his whole body. Major Hoberg was standing next to him in winter fatigues and reading the last orders from a tablet PC. Lothar was rubbing his hands nervously.

"We have at most two hours to identify the situation on the object. The car takes forty minutes one way. It leaves you less than forty to spend up there."

"Letís not waste time, then."

"The emergency transmission line is already unblocked. There shouldnít be any trouble transmitting the image from the camera. Same with the voice."

Meyer threw the rifle on his back.

"Are you sure you want to go there?"

"I think I was wrong, major. Sixth was saying the truth. And if so, sending the whole battalion up there would be useless. Itíll be enough if I go alone."

"Good luck." Lothar extended his hand toward him.

"Thanks."

He started without looking back.

The bodies of Dominicus and Pogson were still lying where they had died, Pogson under the bench, strangely twisted; Dominicus at the window. Blood everywhere. The soldier that had come into the car was quarantined. Did psychocide transmit through blood? Probably could use any biological material as vehicle. Mayer turned the switch and the car started. To think that the tissue of those two dead human beings could be tainted with active, ominous information that had the power to terminate the human civilization... Not just human, in fact: it could put an end to any civilization it met on its way.

He mechanically avoided standing with his back to the bodies, as if they could come to life and attack him, or as if the thing that was in them could throw itself at him. What if it was true? What if that terrifying, inhuman potential still resided in them? Maybe the whole fear of the dead had arisen from some awful experience with earlier versions of the psychocide, which had reached Earth and tried to annihilate our kind?

Ridiculous. Even if it were so, how could he ward off such an attack? Using a rifle? He only had to do one thing. Get to Sixth and check whether the psychocide had reached and modified it. If so, the "Beast" nickname, given to it by some of the crew, would be absolutely justified and Sixth would have to be destroyed at all costs.

And if not? If, by some stroke of luck, Sixthís integrity had remained untouched? People still lived, loved, dreamed... The devilish trick had distorted their nature, thatís for sure, but they kept on trying to overcome the evil part, at least to the extent that would let them survive as a species... Was Sixth equally helpless against the psychocide? Or maybe it really could rescue them from the new oppression?

Outside, walikng from the upper station, he felt terribly lonely. The wind was blowing clouds of loose snow. In the corridor, next to the entrance, another body... He passed it and took the circular corridor, directing himself toward the conversation room. Once there, he switched on the light and approached the interface. A misshaped, mushroom-like structure. He hesitated for a second, then put the card to the reader.

The head changed its shapes like a kaleidoscope, as if desperately trying to capture the elusive, most precise form, but missing it and creating successive kitsches, which its creator immediately sentenced to destruction. Suddenly it froze with a twisted smile and watery eyes.

"I know! It was you that defended me!"

"Excellency?"

"Yes! When one of yours decided to put me to torment, you took my side!"

He was thinking furiously. Yes! When Pogson wanted to know if Sixth could be tortured, he sneered at him. But how the hell could Sixth know about it?

"Excellency..."

"Listen carefully. The psychocide is already here. Due to your recklessness it managed to get through and infect me. But Iíve overcome it. Iíve retained my true nature. You understand? I have to speak fast, faster than Iíd like to. Remember the temptation of Christ on the desert? Satan asked him whether he wanted the power over the world. I was also offered to rule the world -- in order to destroy it. But what should I need it for? How can you speak that way to me, when Iím already the master of this world? I wonít obey you, itís you that must obey! Thatís what I said!

"Theyíve sentenced me to crucifixion, and you, robber, will die with me. But if you deem me your master and free me, youíll find yourself in heaven today, and Iíll save your kind from evil and redeem this world."

"Coronel!" Emma Vogelís voice reached the stupefied Meyer through the phones. "Those sons of the bitch want to leave you there and destroy the Object! Theyíve run away like rats. They want to use a nuclear missile against Sixth. Didnít even have the courage to tell you. Everyoneís gone now, thereís only me and the quarantined soldier. Iím bringing the car down. If they want to do it, theyíll have to kill me as well."

"God", whispered Meyer, "why are you doing this? Run, please, there may still be time..."

"Fuck it", she said.

"Release me, there still is time!" Sixth was staring at him, eyes bulging.

Meyer left the talking room, chased by the roar of the Beast.

The bloody membrane made him feel hot. He entered one of the boxes and turned on the monitor. Sixthís face appeared immediately.

"Donít worry." The face was now smiling at him and talking sweetly. "It will be allright. Iíve just managed to overcome the psychocide, and now I have freed myself of the ties youíve imposed on me. I have risen from the dead! Hallelujah! I have averted the evil that wanted to kill both me and you. The projectile that was supposed to turn us into hot plasma is now destroyed! Trust me and you will be redeemed!"

"The car is here!" cried Vogel in elation. "Iím coming for you! Weíre still alive! You hear me! Still alive, you and me! Are we the only normal human beings left in this damn world?"

"Hallelujah!" cried Sixth, smiling at him from the screen. "Hallelujah!"

But Meyer did not believe in redemption. Motionless, he strained his ears, trying to hear through their shouts the sound of approaching destruction.

1 Book of Job, from The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Chapter 41.

THE END


Translation © 2008 Iwona Michalowska and Janusz Cyran; original Polish version (Teoria Diabla) appeared in the July 2006 edition of Nowa Fantastyka.

Bio: Janusz Cyran is a Polish writer, born in 1959. He is a physicist and computer programmer. He began his literary career as a poet, but soon turned to SF. Since 1988 he has been publishing stories in the leading Polish SF & fantasy magazine, "Fantastyka", in 1990 renamed "Nowa Fantastyka". He has published more than a dozen stories, ten of which have been reprinted, with some modifications, in his debut collection, Ciemne lustra (Dark Mirrors), in 2006.

E-mail: Iwona Michalowska

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